Action Barriers Part 2: Guilt

Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness

Guilt should maybe have come first in this series, since the emotional core of guilt is the driving force for the defensiveness, but it also has variations that are equally destructive in ways that I think are tougher to understand.

Liberal guilt is a cliché for a reason, but people tend to think of it as bad because it’s ineffective or somewhat dishonest, not because it’s actually adding to the problem in and of itself. Here is an essay by Zuky on the paternalistic racism of the white liberal guilt-driven dynamic and what it means to not fall into that trap. Note:

Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words.

I don’t know how successfully I manage to address these problems in my own behaviour, at least on a consistent basis, with respect to racism and white privilege, but the paragraph above reminds me of the spectrum of behaviours among my family members when we were in Asia last year.

My uncle was the one with the “flagrantly offensive opinions”, from the slant-eye references, to the accent mockery, to the “don’t they have any real food” comment. My father was the slightly more liberal, significantly better educated one who got past mockery and went to essentialism. I particularly remember being in a train station in Seoul and passing a guy who had set up a vending station of crafts and trinkets on a blanket—something that would not look remotely out of place on any urban street or in a subway station. Dad’s comment? “Aren’t they industrious?” It’s useless to say anything to my dad, but in my head, I was thinking “Dad—they’re not freaking Doozers” (I’d also note that if it were a busker in downtown Toronto, the word would be ‘lazy beggar’, not ‘industrious’, but that’s a question for another time).

The stuff I had the most difficulty breaking down, however, came from my very well educated, very liberal (in general) soon-to-be ex-husband. When we were in Vietnam, he had this notion in his head that we had to have an “authentic” Vietnamese experience, meaning that we shouldn’t eat at touristy places, we should look for a place where people didn’t speak English and no one was trying to impress us. So we had a couple of terrible meals in dirty places not really designed to serve customers, having non-conversations with people who knew very few English words. My base position was that we were in Vietnam for a week, we spoke no Vietnamese, it was abundantly obvious that we were tourists, and not only was there no way we could scratch the surface of the experience of the Vietnamese, who is benefiting if we do have that experience? Basically, this assuaged my ex’s sense of liberal guilt at being a ‘have’ and seeing the global ‘have nots’ in person for the first time. But it’s both tokenizing and paternalistic, as if it matters that a Canadian white guy share the experience of poor Asians and that somehow enriches his life and legitimizes their experience. My friends who lived in Burkina Faso for several months heard a Burkinabé complain about this concept by saying that he didn’t want white people to come and live like he did as part of their big exotic adventure, patting themselves on the back for briefly choosing ‘poverty’—he didn’t want to live in those conditions himself, so why would he want to see you living in them? It’s also ridiculously condescending to think that a week, a month, even a year of moving oneself into the conditions of the oppressed, always knowing that you can go back to your comfortable life of privilege with just a little bit of work, can ever approximate the trap of genuine poverty and oppression.

Among my family members, more liberalism and more education came with more guilt and more forceful, vehement closed-mindedness to the possibility that one’s behaviour might be racist. Guilt is destructive because we as white people decide that it’s enough just to try on any level to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, enough to “know”, conceptually, enough to shake our heads and go ‘tsk tsk’. We take on some sort of irrelevant penance for our privilege, we assuage our feeling of guilt at being ‘haves’ and then go right back to having, satisfied that our work here is done and that we are not racists.

Because this is what matters—that I am not a racist. And again, we’ve turned the conversation from being about racism to being about not-racism, to being about the experience of P and his guilt. Another quote from Zuky’s essay (emphasis mine):

There’s no static end-condition at which an anti-racist can arrive and definitively declare, “Hallelujah! I am Not A Racist!” Rather, it’s a lifelong process of historical education, vigilant self-interrogation, personal growth, and socio-political agitation. Racism fractures our world and our own intactness; anti-racism seeks to proactively treat these bleeding wounds and restore the integrity of our humanity.

I want to stop using the “ist” words (racist, sexist, misogynist etc) as capital-letter nouns, something one “is” or “is not” and transfer them to purely adjectival use referring to actions. I said in the “Defensiveness” essay that “Did not commit genocide” would seem a pretty bare minimum to put on one’s moral scorecard; “not a Racist” wouldn’t have an impact on the balance sheets at all. This gets us to the mythical Good Person concept that I want to get to later. It may make you feel a lot better to say “I am not a racist/misogynist/homophobe”, but that’s all it does.

Your guilt and your self-identity in the binary of racist vs. not racist etc are completely irrelevant. Go ahead and plead ‘not guilty’ to the charge of “being a racist”, a charge you weren’t actually on trial for in the first place. Okay good. Now that we’ve got that cleared up, we can get back to talking about racist actions and inactions, our own and those of others, and what the hell we’re going to do about them. Your overwhelming innocence is getting in the way.


3 thoughts on “Action Barriers Part 2: Guilt

  1. Oliver Jones says:

    I’m of the mind that racism is not so much a reifiable thing-in-itself so much as it is a kind of language or negotiation, a process with which we engage and which internalize into our rational and irrational constructions of the world.

    I will confess that I am inclined towards racism much more than I’d like to admit – and though I’m reluctant to play down my own active responsibility for that – I feel it is necessary to recognize that this racism manifests predominantly as an impulse, that it is ‘instinctive’. I embrace the ideological supposition that race as a social index is a cultural construction, that our prevailing conception of race is the legacy of the attempt to pathologize a specific hierarchy of human differentiation in a manner that has been wholly discredited…Nonetheless, I retain the paternalistic presumptions of orient and occident, of noble and savage, or first and third world.

    Surely, I’m comforted by transgressing these valuations, by embracing the inversion of what is fundamentally ‘other’ – I have some questionably ideas about the legitimacy of Islamic terrorism, for example – but in playing into those presumptions – for whatever purpose – I am affirming them.

    I live near the CNE, so Caribana pretty much happens right outside my door ever august long weekend. I caught myself thinking some very uncomfortable thoughts walking through my neighborhood during the festival this year, and I though to myself: what impels this kind of thinking? Despite my ideological inclinations, I am still subject to the sad, patronizing narrative of cultural superiority. What permits this schism, this dichotomy between what I have come to through rational consideration and what I ‘feel’?

    Racism is a conditioned response to an array of subtextual presumptions regarded the superiority of one’s own cultural values, it is encoded into our most basic cultural assumptions. It is irrevocably present in our master narratives, no matter how much the reassurances proffered by those narratives are undermined in the present. Bearing this in mind, I’m inclined to think that ‘liberal guilt’ – or rather the troubling sensation derived from presumptions of cultural superiority – here might serve as a useful vehicle for critical self-reflection and for the rehabilitation of racists.

  2. […] About Purtek ← Action Barriers Part 2: Guilt […]

  3. danadocus says:

    thanks purtek, this post really made me think hard.

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